Story by Jeff Metcalfe
Stanford, the final major college team standing in 2021, is the only Pac-12 team still alive going into the 2022 Sweet Sixteen.
Arizona, the ’21 runner-up, on Monday became the fifth Pac-12 team eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, losing 63-45 at home in the second round to North Carolina.
For the first time since 2014, the Pac-12 has just one team advancing to the second weekend — fewer than five other conferences, including the Big Ten and ACC, which fill half of the Sweet Sixteen.
There was a record-tying number of wins by double-digit seeds in the first and second rounds, two of those over Pac-12 teams.
“It adds a lot of excitement, but I didn’t want it happening to us,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who at halftime Sunday had reason to wonder about the outcome of the Cardinal’s matchup against No. 8 seed Kansas.
But like in the Pac-12 Tournament final two weeks earlier, Stanford hit the accelerator in the second half to turn a two-point lead into a 91-65 victory for its 14th consecutive Sweet Sixteen berth and 22nd straight win this season.
“Tara made a point to us that we weren’t playing our best, to put it nicely,” senior guard Lexie Hull said of the first half against Kansas. “We didn’t want to come back into the locker room on a loss and our season being over.
“That was the message for all of us, to get out there and lay everything on the court.”
All Hull did was put up 25 of a career-high 36 points in the second half while also finishing with six rebounds, six steals and three assists in a virtuoso performance that assured she and her twin sister Lacie will be playing the regionals in their hometown Spokane, Wash., for a chance to return to the Final Four.
Stanford plays No. 4 seed Maryland on Friday, the teams’ second meeting this season. The Cardinal won 86-68 in the Bahamas on Nov. 27 when Maryland had just seven players available due to illness and injury.
Stanford’s 6-foot-1 junior forward Fran Belibi had arguably the signature play of NCAA opening weekend, converting a steal near the top of the key into a one-handed dunk in the second quarter against Montana State.
The Cardinal led that game 23-0 before the Bobcats scored early in the second quarter. Belibi’s slam made it 31-6 on the way to a 41-12 halftime advantage.
Her dunk was the third in NCAA Tournament history and the first since Baylor’s Brittney Griner in 2013.
“I dunk all the time, and when I look back at pictures, everyone is still just as excited as if it was their first time seeing it,” said Belibi, who has three dunks in her career. “I think it’s really cool to see that on their faces.
“They’ve been getting on me all year about not dunking so far. The freshmen have been like, ‘We came here for this, so where is it?’ So it was really cool to get it and to make it happen and then to just get engulfed. I felt really loved.”
VanDerveer is donating $10 for each 3-pointer made in the entire NCAA Tournament for Ukrainian relief efforts through Save the Children, Americares and Global Giving.
Her gift total is $6,290 through Monday with 15 games still to be played before a champion is crowned April 3 in Minneapolis.
“I hope other people will get on board with this challenge,” said VanDerveer, the coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, which played in Kyiv before the Atlanta Games.
Home court not enough to propel Arizona
With four other Pac-12 teams losing in a sub-regional play before Monday, Arizona was under added pressure to extend the conference’s streak of putting at least two teams into the Sweet Sixteen to a seventh year.
The No. 4-seeded Wildcats trailed UNLV at the end of the third quarter Saturday to win their first-round game.
Guard Shaina Pellington tied her season high with 30 points (three off her career best) and forward Cate Reese returned from a Feb. 20 shoulder injury with 16, leading the Wildcats into the second round against No. 5 North Carolina.
But almost nothing went well Monday for the Wildcats, who after taking a slim lead at 5:19 of the first quarter failed to score again until 3:52 in the second, when they trailed 23-9.
“They were all difficult to guard,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “We had a tough time recognizing things. I felt we would have more of a sense of urgency because we have experience (from 2021) in much more pressure situations. We weren’t able to get stops and turn them over.”
Arizona did claw within seven (32-25) midway through the third quarter, only to be hit with a 19-2 run by the Tar Heels before another big but mostly disappointed crowd at McKale Center (8,333).
Reese and Pellington dropped off to six and three points, respectively — 37 fewer than they scored against UNLV.
“We wanted Todd’s length on Pellington,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said of Kennedy Todd-Williams, who also led the Tar Heels with 19 points. “I don’t like any matchup 1-on-1 with any of their players. It was all five, all the time.”
Oregon’s four-year Sweet Sixteen run ends
Utah was the other Pac-12 team to reach the NCAA second round, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington State dropping their openers.
The Pac-12 went 4-5 overall in the sub-regionals, three wins below our Hotline forecast.
Utah played to its No. 7 seeding, winning 92-69 over No. 10 Arkansas before losing 78-56 to No. 2 Texas, also in the Spokane regional with Stanford.
The Utes went 15-of-31 from 3-point range in the first round, then dipped to 6-of-20 against Texas.
“Maybe they just got into our heads a little bit, and we were trying to do too much,” Utah guard Dru Gylten said. “We just wanted somebody to make a play and (were) kind of relying on other people to do stuff and got away from what we do best.”
Stanford lost to Texas 61-56 on Nov. 14. A potential rematch would be in the Spokane regional final Sunday.
“If it ends up being Texas-Stanford, that’s going to be a great game,” said Utah coach Lynne Roberts, who was 0-3 vs. Stanford this season. “My hypothetical money is on Stanford, just because they’re Pac-12.”
— No. 5 seed Oregon’s 73-70 double-overtime loss to No. 12 Belmont ended the Ducks’ four-year run to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. Belmont also put a deep scare into No. 4 Tennessee on Monday in a 70-67 second-round loss.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who had a national championship contender in 2020 when the postseason was canceled due to COVID, talked afterward about a need to reset after a 20-12 season.
“At times, our players have acted and performed entitled,” Graves said. “This group hasn’t won anything. We’ve got to come back and work harder and be tougher. It’s a mindset. We’ve got to come back hungrier because we’re no longer the hunted. We’re hunting like everybody else.”
— No. 7 Colorado also lost to a double-digit seed, No. 10 Creighton (final score: 84-74). The Bluejays then took it a step further, beating second-seeded Iowa 64-62 on Saturday to reach their first Sweet Sixteen.
The Buffs were down four late in the fourth quarter when a Kindyll Wetta foul was upgraded to intentional. Creighton made two free throws and a basket off the ensuing possession, taking what proved to be an insurmountable eight-point lead with 1:24 remaining.
“If you know Kindyll Wetta, you know she wouldn’t harm a spider walking across the floor,” Colorado coach JR Payne said. “It was just a trap. I think it was incidental contact, her hand hit her face, but anything above the shoulders is going to be (ruled intentional).”
— No. 8 seed Washington State lost for a second straight year in the first round, 50-40 to No. 9 Kansas State. The Cougars led 24-17 at halftime before Kansas State found a way to get the ball to 6-foot-6 Ayoka Lee, who finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
“Fouls really mounted up for the two bigs that I put in,” Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge said.
“They obviously got a few good looks for her, but every foul ended up in a shooting foul. (Lee went 10-of-12 from the line). She’s so good — better than anyone in the country that can catch it high and keep it high, and she gets a lot of calls on that.
“That was really the difference.”
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